SONOMA COUNTY, Calif. — A California prosecutor has filed 33 criminal counts against troubled Pacific Gas & Electric involving a 2019 wildfire.
The Sonoma County District Attorney on Tuesday charged the utility in the October 2019 Kincade Fire north of San Francisco. The blaze burned more than 120 square miles and destroyed 374 buildings. The utility did not immediately comment. The 33 charges, five felonies and 28 misdemeanors, including recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury to six firefighters.
PG&E also faces two felony counts of reckless emission of air contaminants. Prosecutors say two children suffered injuries from wildfire smoke.
Even if PG&E is found guilty of these crimes it wouldn’t mean anyone goes to prison.
In response to the felony charges filed against PG&E Tuesday, the company admitted that its power line sparked the 2019 Kincade Fire but denied that it committed any crimes.
It’s the latest in a series of similar problems for the utility, which was also charged after another devastating fire destroyed much of the Sierra foothills community of Paradise in 2018 in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s recorded history.
The company committed 85 felonies in the 2018 Camp Fire, including 84 counts of manslaughter. No one went to prison because corporations can’t be sent there and no people at PG&E were charged.
Legal experts are watching to see if any PG&E executives or managers end up being charged in the Kincade Fire.
"Whether or not [prosecutors] are able to hold individuals accountable for these felonies I think is still an open question," said law professor and former state utility commissioner Catherine Sandoval. "The things that are alleged here didn’t just happen. What Sonoma County is alleging is not an accident, but a deliberate pattern of reckless behavior that lasted for more than a decade."
A CalFire investigation determined the Kincade Fire was caused on Oct. 23, 2019, when a jumper cable on a PG&E transmission tower at its Geysers Geothermal Field northeast of Geyserville "that broke in high winds, fell and arced against the tower. The arc caused molten material to fall into vegetation and ignite below the tower."
It took CalFire 15 days to contain the fire.
"I went with others from my team, along with CalFire, to the location in the Geysers where we believe the fire began as soon as it was safe to do so," Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said. "Since that time, we have been working with CalFire and independent experts to determine the cause of and responsibility for the Kincade fire. I believe this criminal complaint reflects our findings."
The PG&E corporation admitted Tuesday that its power line did spark the Kincade Fire, but the company is fighting the charges.
“We do not believe there was any crime here,” PG&E said in a press release. ”We remain committed to making it right for all those impacted.”
The Kincade Fire isn’t the only open criminal investigation against PG&E.
Shasta County prosecutors are investigating last year’s Zogg Fire, which killed four people.
The district attorney says the charges could be as serious as murder.
Watch more from ABC10: California wildfires: How PG&E continues to avoid accountability | FIRE – POWER – MONEY special